Opera by Alban Berg
Based onWoyzeck
by Georg Büchner
14 December 1925 (1925-12-14)

Wozzeck (German pronunciation: [ˈvɔtsɛk]) is the first opera by the Austrian composer Alban Berg. Composed between 1914 and 1922, it premiered in 1925. It is based on the drama Woyzeck, which German playwright Georg Büchner left incomplete at his death. Berg attended the first production in Vienna of Büchner's play on 5 May 1914, and knew at once that he wanted to base an opera on it. (At the time, the play was still known as Wozzeck, due to an incorrect transcription by Karl Emil Franzos, who was working from a barely-legible manuscript; the correct title would not emerge until 1921.) From the fragments of unordered scenes left by Büchner, Berg selected 15 to form a compact structure of three acts with five scenes each. He adapted the libretto himself, retaining "the essential character of the play, with its many short scenes, its abrupt and sometimes brutal language, and its stark, if haunted, realism..."[1]

The plot depicts the everyday lives of soldiers and the townspeople of a rural German-speaking town. Prominent themes of militarism, callousness, social exploitation, and casual sadism are brutally and uncompromisingly presented. Toward the end of act 1, scene 2, the title character (Wozzeck) murmurs, "Still, all is still, as if the world died," with his fellow soldier Andres muttering, "Night! We must get back!" seemingly oblivious to Wozzeck's words. A funeral march begins, only to transform into the upbeat song of the military marching band in the next scene. Musicologist Glenn Watkins considers this "as vivid a projection of impending world doom as any to come out of the Great War ...."[2][3]

Historical background

Georg Büchner, illustration in a French edition of his complete works (1879).

Berg began writing the opera in 1914 shortly before World War I, which delayed his work. In 1916, he devoted himself to attaining the rank of Einjährig-Freiwillige Korporal,[a] which he did later that year.

His letters and notebooks document his pained determination to complete Wozzeck. He told his wife, "For months I haven't done any work on Wozzeck. Everything suffocated. Buried!"[2] He finally had more time to work on regiment leave (1917–1918).

Berg's war experience had a pronounced effect on Wozzeck. He wrote his wife (June 1918), "There is a little bit of me in his character, ... spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, ... in chains, sick, captive, resigned, ... humiliated."[3]

He finished act 1 by summer 1919, act 2 in August 1921, and act 3 over the next two months.[1] He finalized orchestration over the following six months. Wozzeck was completed in April 1922.



Berg's notes and sketches for Wozzeck (and "Marsch", Op. 6/iii, 1913–1915) were mingled with disjointed fragments of military ordinances and terminology. In a draft page of the act 1, scene 2 libretto, he sketched Austrian army bugle calls. He modified them in the final score, where they appeared in a recognizably atonal form. He also included modified folk elements, particularly in the open field and tavern scenes.

Berg's personal experience informed his word painting of snoring soldiers in barracks (act 2, scene 5): "this polyphonic breathing, gasping, and groaning is the most peculiar chorus I've ever heard. It is like some primeval music that wells up from the abysses of the soul".[4]

Berg's expressionist music emphasized Wozzeck's and other characters' emotions and thought processes, particularly Wozzeck's madness and alienation. Though atonal, it was not always without conventional function in its voice leading, extended tonicizations, or arguably tonal passages. He used pitch and harmony among elements of the music's formal structure to portray the drama. Some pitch sets recur at crucial moments, establishing continuity and contributing to coherence. B–F tritonal dyads represent Wozzeck and Marie, tense and struggling. B–D minor-third dyads represent Marie's bond with her child.

In an adagio interlude Berg adapted from a Mahlerian D-minor student piece, the opera nearly ends in a climax, with a dominant-functioning aggregate marked ff crescendoing into a statement of the "anguish" leitmotif (act 3, mm. 364–365). The dramatic effect is cathartic after Wozzeck's final mad scene "Wo ist das Messer?"[5][b]

Wozzeck's and Marie's unnamed son, now an orphan, plays among children singing "Ringel, Ringel, Rosenkranz, Ringelreih'n!" in a brief epilogue. They are interrupted by the news that a peer shouts at him: "Du! Dein Mutter ist tot!"[c]


The opera uses a variety of musical techniques to create unity and coherence. The first is leitmotifs. As with most examples of this method, each leitmotif is used in a much subtler manner than being directly attached to a character or object. Still, motifs for the Captain, the Doctor and the Drum Major are very prominent. Wozzeck is clearly associated with two motifs, one often heard as he rushes on or off stage, the other more languidly expressing his misery and helplessness in the face of the pressures he experiences. Marie is accompanied by motifs that express her sensuality, as when she accepts a pair of earrings from the Drum Major. A motif not linked to a physical object is the pair of chords that close each act, used in an oscillating repetition until they almost blur into one another.

The most significant is the "anguish" motif first sung by Wozzeck in the first scene with the Captain, to the words "Wir arme Leut" ("we poor folks"). Tracing out a minor chord with added major seventh, it is frequently heard as the signal of the characters' inability to transcend their situation.

 \new Staff \with { \remove "Time_signature_engraver" \remove "Bar_engraver" } \relative c' { \clef bass r8 dis-- b--[ e,--] g4-- } \addlyrics { Wir ar- me Leut! }

Berg also reuses motifs from set pieces heard earlier in the opera to give insight into characters' thoughts. For example, the reappearance of military band music in the last scene of act 1 informs the audience that Marie is musing on the Drum Major's attractiveness.

An almost imperceptible leitmotif is the single pitch B, symbolizing the murder. It is first heard pp at the very end of act 2, after Wozzeck's humiliation, after his words "Einer nach dem andern" ("one after another"), and grows increasingly insistent during the murder scene, with Marie's last cry for help a two-octave jump from B5 to B3, until after the murder, when the whole orchestra explodes through a prolonged crescendo on this note, first in unison on B3, then spread across the whole range of the orchestra in octaves.

Classic forms

Berg decided not to use classic operatic forms such as aria or trio. Instead, each scene is given its own inner coherence by the use of forms more commonly associated with abstract instrumental music. The second scene of act 2 (during which the Doctor and Captain taunt Wozzeck about Marie's infidelity), for instance, consists of a prelude and triple fugue. The fourth scene of act 1, focusing on Wozzeck and the Doctor, is a passacaglia.

The scenes of the third act move beyond these structures and adopt novel strategies. Each scene is a set of variations, but not necessarily on a melody. Thus, scene two is a variation on a single note, B, which is heard continuously in the scene, and the only note heard in the powerful orchestral crescendos at the end of act 3, scene 2. Scene 3 is a variation on a rhythmic pattern, with every major thematic element constructed around this pattern. Scene 4 is a variation on a chord, used exclusively for the whole scene. The following orchestral interlude is a freely composed passage firmly grounded in D minor. Finally, the last scene is a moto perpetuo, a variation on a single rhythm (the quaver).

The table below summarizes the dramatic action and forms as prepared by Fritz Mahler.[6]

Drama Music
Expositions Act 1 Five character pieces
Wozzeck and the Captain Scene 1 Suite
Wozzeck and Andres Scene 2 Rhapsody
Wozzeck and Marie Scene 3 Military March and Lullaby
Wozzeck and the Doctor Scene 4 Passacaglia
Marie and the Drum Major Scene 5 Andante affettuoso (quasi Rondo)
Dramatic development Act 2 Symphony in five movements
Marie and her child, later Wozzeck Scene 1 Sonata movement
The Captain and the Doctor, later Wozzeck Scene 2 Fantasia and fugue
Marie and Wozzeck Scene 3 Largo
Garden of a tavern Scene 4 Scherzo
Guard room in the barracks Scene 5 Rondo con introduzione
Catastrophe and epilogue Act 3 Six inventions
Marie and her child Scene 1 Invention on a theme
Marie and Wozzeck Scene 2 Invention on a note (B)
Tavern Scene 3 Invention on a rhythm
Death of Wozzeck Scene 4 Invention on a hexachord
Interlude Invention on a key (D minor)
Children playing Scene 5 Invention on a regular quaver movement


Wozzeck uses a fairly large orchestra and has three onstage ensembles in addition to the pit orchestra (a marching band in act 1, scene 3; a chamber orchestra in act 2, scene 3; and a tavern band in act 2, scene 4; an upright piano is also played in act 3, scene 3). The instrumentation is:[7]

Pit orchestra

Special groups

Marching band (Act I, scene iii):

Berg notes that marching band members may be taken from the pit orchestra, indicating exactly where the players can leave with a footnote near the end of Act I, scene ii.

Tavern band (Act II, scene iv):

In addition, for the Tavern scene in Act III, scene iii, Berg calls for an out-of-tune upright piano.

Chamber orchestra (Act II, scene iii):

The instrumentation matches that of Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No. 1.


Roles, voice types, premiere cast
Role Voice type Premiere cast, 14 December 1925
Conductor: Erich Kleiber
Wozzeck baritone Leo Schützendorf
Marie, his common-law wife soprano Sigrid Johanson
Marie's son treble Ruth Iris Witting
Captain buffo tenor Waldemar Henke
Doctor buffo bass Martin Abendroth
Drum Major heldentenor Fritz Soot
Andres, Wozzeck's friend lyric tenor Gerhard Witting
Margret, Marie's neighbor contralto Jessika Koettrik
First Apprentice deep bass Ernst Osterkamp
Second Apprentice high baritone Alfred Borchardt
Madman high tenor Marcel Noé
A Soldier baritone Leonhard Kern
Soldiers, apprentices, women, children


Act 1

Scene 1 (Suite)

Wozzeck is shaving the Captain, who lectures him on the qualities of a "decent man" and taunts him for living an immoral life. Wozzeck slavishly replies, "Jawohl, Herr Hauptmann" ("Yes sir, Captain") repeatedly to the Captain's abuse. But when the Captain scorns Wozzeck for having a child "without the blessing of the Church", Wozzeck protests that it is difficult to be virtuous when one is poor, and entreats the Captain to remember the lesson from the gospel, "Lasset die Kleinen zu mir kommen!" ("Suffer the little children to come unto me," Mark 10:14). The Captain is confounded by Wozzeck's theological knowledge and anxiously squeaks, "What do you mean? And what sort of curious answer is that? You make me quite confused!" Wozzeck continues the discussion by positing that it would be easy to be moral if he were wealthy and that, if the poor ever "got to Heaven, we'd all have to manufacture thunder!" The flustered Captain, unable to comprehend Wozzeck, finally concedes that he is "a decent man, only you think too much!" The Captain concludes the discussion, saying it has "quite fatigued" him and again chides Wozzeck to walk slowly before finally exiting.

Scene 2 (Rhapsody and Hunting Song)

Johann Christian Woyzeck, on whom the play is based

Wozzeck and Andres are cutting sticks as the sun is setting. Wozzeck has frightening visions and Andres tries unsuccessfully to calm him.

Scene 3 (March and Lullaby)

A military parade passes by outside Marie's room. Margret taunts Marie for flirting with the soldiers. Marie shuts the window and sings a lullaby to her son. Wozzeck then comes by and tells Marie of the terrible visions he has had, promptly leaving without seeing their son, much to Marie's dismay. She laments being poor.

Scene 4 (Passacaglia)

The Doctor scolds Wozzeck for not following his instructions regarding diet and behavior. But when the Doctor hears of Wozzeck's mental aberrations, he is delighted and congratulates himself on the success of his experiment.

Scene 5 (Rondo)

Marie admires the Drum Major outside her room. He makes advances on her, which she first rejects but then accepts after a short struggle.

Act 2

Scene 1 (Sonata-Allegro)

Marie is telling her child to go to sleep while admiring earrings the Drum Major gave her. She is startled when Wozzeck arrives. He asks where she got the earrings, and she says she found them. Though not convinced, Wozzeck gives her some money and leaves. Marie chastises herself for her behavior.

Scene 2 (Fantasia and Fugue on 3 Themes)

The Doctor rushes by the Captain in the street, who urges him to slow down. The Doctor then proceeds to scare the Captain by speculating about what afflictions he may have. When Wozzeck comes by, they insinuate that Marie is being unfaithful to him.

Scene 3 (Largo)

Wozzeck confronts Marie, who does not deny his suspicions. Enraged, Wozzeck is about to hit her when she stops him, saying even her father never dared lay a hand on her. Her statement "better a knife in my belly than your hands on me" plants in Wozzeck's mind the idea for his revenge.

Scene 4 (Scherzo)

Among a crowd, Wozzeck sees Marie dancing with the Drum Major. After a brief hunter's chorus, Andres asks Wozzeck why he is sitting by himself. An Apprentice delivers a drunken sermon, then an Idiot approaches Wozzeck and cries out that the scene is "Lustig, lustig...aber es riecht ...Ich riech, ich riech Blut!" ("joyful, joyful, but it reeks...I smell, I smell blood").

Scene 5 (Rondo)

In the barracks at night, Wozzeck, unable to sleep, is keeping Andres awake. The Drum Major comes in, intoxicated, and rouses Wozzeck out of bed to fight with him.

Act 3

Scene 1 (Invention on a Theme)

In her room at night, Marie reads to herself from the Bible. She cries out that she wants forgiveness.

Scene 2 (Invention on a Single Note (B))

Wozzeck and Marie are walking in the woods by a pond. Marie is anxious to leave, but Wozzeck restrains her. As a blood-red moon rises, Wozzeck says that if he can't have Marie, no one else can, and stabs her.

Scene 3 (Invention on a Rhythm)

People are dancing in a tavern. Wozzeck enters, and upon seeing Margret, dances with her and pulls her onto his lap. He insults her, and then asks her to sing him a song. She sings, but then notices blood on his hand and elbow; everyone begins shouting at him, and Wozzeck, agitated and obsessed with the blood, rushes out of the tavern.

Scene 4 (Invention on a Hexachord)

Having returned to the murder scene, Wozzeck becomes obsessed with the thought that the knife he killed Marie with will incriminate him, and throws it into the pond. When the blood-red moon appears again, Wozzeck, fearing that he has not thrown the knife far enough from shore and also wanting to wash away the blood staining his clothing and hands, wades into the pond and drowns. The Captain and the Doctor, passing by, hear Wozzeck moaning and rush off in fright.

Interlude (Invention on a Key (D minor))

This interlude leads to the finale.

Scene 5 (Invention on an Eighth-Note moto perpetuo, quasi toccata)

The next morning, children are playing in the sunshine. The news spreads that Marie's body has been found, and they all run off to see, except for Marie's son, who after an oblivious moment, follows after the others.


This section needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve this article by adding citations to reliable sources in this section. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (July 2016) (Learn how and when to remove this message)

Wozzeck is perhaps the most famous among early 20th-century modernist operas.[d] It is one of the most famous examples of atonal music (and Sprechgesang).

In its dissonant, psychological idiom, Wozzeck was compared to Schoenberg's Erwartung (and sometimes to 19th-century operas, e.g., Verdi's Macbeth).[citation needed] Critics compared Britten's subsequent Peter Grimes to it.[citation needed]

Early performance history

Erich Kleiber, "who programmed (the opera) on his own initiative",[1] conducted the world premiere at the Berlin State Opera on 14 December 1925. Walsh writes that it was "a succès de scandale with disturbances during the performance and a mixed press afterwards, but it led to a stream of productions in Germany and Austria, before the Nazis consigned it to the dustbin of 'degenerate art' after 1933".[1] Initially, Wozzeck established a solid place for itself in the mainstream operatic tradition and quickly became so well-established in the repertoire of the major European opera houses that Berg found himself able to live a comfortable life off the royalties. He spent a good deal of his time through the 1920s and 30s traveling to attend performances and to give talks about the opera.

The Philadelphia Grand Opera Company gave Wozzeck's American premiere on 19 March 1931[1] at the Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House, with Leopold Stokowski conducting.

Arnold Schoenberg's former pupil, the conductor and BBC programme planner Edward Clark, produced a broadcast of fragments of the work in a studio concert on 13 May 1932, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood.[8] On 14 March 1934 in the Queen's Hall, Adrian Boult conducted a complete concert performance of Wozzeck, again produced by Edward Clark.[9][10] The opera was given its first British staged performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 22 January 1952.[1]

A typical performance of the work takes slightly over an hour and a half.

Later influence

In Sinfonia (1968–69), Luciano Berio quotes the rising orchestral chords Berg uses in the word painting of Wozzeck's drowning.[11]

Gurlitt's Wozzeck

Another Woyzeck opera, Manfred Gurlitt's Wozzeck, was first performed four months after Berg's work. They worked without any knowledge of one another. Gurlitt's work has remained in the shadow of Berg's.[12]


Arrangements of Berg's setting include one for 22 singers and 21 instrumental parts by Canadian composer John Rea[7] and one for a reduced orchestra of about 60 players for smaller theatres by composer and fellow Schoenberg student Erwin Stein[13] in collaboration with Berg.[14]


Film adaptation

The 1970 Hamburg State Opera production was filmed for the 1972 TV film Wozzeck, directed by Joachim Hess [de] and broadcast on Norddeutscher Rundfunk. Filming was done in and around a deserted castle.[16]


  1. ^ Corporal
  2. ^ "Where is the knife?" Here Wozzeck, searching for the knife he used to murder Marie, drowns in a moonlit pond he hallucinates is red with Marie's blood.
  3. ^ "You! Your mother is dead!"
  4. ^ Ernst Krenek's Orpheus und Eurydike is a far less known example.


  1. ^ a b c d e f Walsh 2001, pp. 61–63
  2. ^ a b Hall, Patricia (2011). Berg's Wozzeck. Oxford University Press. pp. 26–38. ISBN 978-0195342611. Retrieved 2015-05-09.
  3. ^ a b Watkins, Glenn (2002). Proof Through the Night: Music and the Great War. University of California Press. p. 235. ISBN 978-0520927896. Retrieved 2015-05-09.
  4. ^ Rose, Michael (2013). The Birth of an Opera: Fifteen Masterpieces from Poppea to Wozzeck. W. W. Norton. p. 375. ISBN 978-0393060430. Retrieved 2015-05-09.
  5. ^ Headlam 1996, p. 159; Ross 2008, pp. 78–79.
  6. ^ Pople 1997, p. 148.
  7. ^ a b "Alban Berg – Wozzeck – Reduzierte Fassung (21 instrumente) – John Rea". Universal Edition. Retrieved 9 December 2010.
  8. ^ Nicholas Chadwick. "Alban Berg and the BBC" (PDF). Bl.uk. Retrieved 27 January 2018.
  9. ^ Bray, Trevor. "Frank Bridge: A Life in Brief ~ Isolation: 62". Trevor-bray-music-research.co.uk.
  10. ^ Denis Apivor. "Memories of 'The Warlock Circle'". Musicweb-international.com.
  11. ^ Berio's Sinfonia, Symphony in J, 26 July 2009
  12. ^ "Gurlitt: Wozzeck (Roland Hermann, Celina Lindsley, Anton...) – review". Classical-music.com.
  13. ^ "Alban Berg – Wozzeck – reduced version (Stein)", Universal Edition. Retrieved 12 November 2013.
  14. ^ Simms 1996, p. 36.
  15. ^ The set included a bonus LP record of Alban Berg's lecture on 'Wozzeck', read in English by the music critic Noël Goodwin, with music examples conducted by Boulez.
  16. ^ Levine, Robert. "Berg: Wozzeck, 1970/Hamburg DVD". Classics Today.


Further reading[edit]

  • Adorno, Theodor W. (1991), Alban Berg: Master of the Smallest Link. Trans. Juliane Brand and Christopher Hailey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-33016-5
  • Bonds, M. E. (2020). “Wozzeck’s Worst Hours”: Alban Berg’s Presentation Copy of Wozzeck to Eduard Steuermann. Notes, 76(4), 527–534.
  • Hall, Patricia (2011), "Berg's Wozzeck". Studies in Musical Genesis, Structure, and Interpretation. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-534261-1 (accessed 29 October 2012).
  • Jarman, Douglas (1979), The Music of Alban Berg. London and Boston: Faber & Faber ISBN 0-571-10956-X; Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03485-6
  • Jarman, Douglas (1989), "Alban Berg, Wozzeck". Cambridge Opera Handbooks. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-24151-0 (cloth) ISBN 0-521-28481-3 (pbk).
  • Perle, George (1980), The Operas of Alban Berg, Vol 1: "Wozzeck". Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03440-6.
  • Schmalfeldt, Janet (1983), "Berg's Wozzeck", Harmonic Language and Dramatic Design. New Haven: Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-02710-9.

External links[edit]